As Ann Arbor's top administrator exits, he offers thoughts on the city's future

When Steve Powers gave his first budget presentation to the Ann Arbor City Council after being hired as the city administrator in 2011, council members responded with applause. It wasn't a bad way to kick off his tenure as Ann Arbor's top employee. As anyone who has viewed a municipal budget can attest, they aren't typically documents that elicit such emotion. But after some tight years and reductions in city staff, Powers included in his first budget the hiring back of more police officers and other services the council was eager to see. 

"It really was a reflection on the outstanding work that the staff team had done in crafting the budget and being responsive to what we were hearing from council," Powers says. "It certainly wasn't the presenter."

While Powers deflects the credit for the budget excitement in virtually every direction but his own, it's the job of the city administrator to be at the center of everything that happens at city hall. While council and the mayor may be the most visible figures in local government, publicly discussing and determining policy, the city administrator figures out how to get it all done. 

After four years in Ann Arbor's top administrative office, Power has accepted the position of city manager in Salem, Oregon. Though he says he wasn't looking to leave his post, Powers was given "an offer too good to refuse" by the Oregon city. 

Powers is careful not to brag on any of his accomplishments during his time in Ann Arbor, but his position has undoubtedly granted him a unique perspective on how the city has changed since he arrived, as well as its greatest challenges moving forward. Here, we discuss with Powers his time in Ann Arbor and the direction in which he expects the city to move after he moves away. 

What's changed in four years

"Four yeas is really a blip in the life of a city," Powers says. "And people tend to overestimate the influence of one person. In Ann Arbor, the policy decisions rest with council."

Those caveats aside, a lot has happened over the past four years in Ann Arbor city government. Particularly because of the turning point at which the city found itself when Powers arrived, post recession and ready to start growing again. He says he was pleased to help stabilize and build back some capacity to the organization, which not only included adding back key public safety staff, but also adding resources to the city's internal safety operations. 

"For an operation of 780 employees doing all kinds of services, sometimes under very potentially dangerous situations," he says, "it was important that we had a strong emphasis on employee safety." 

The visible outcomes of city government during Powers' time included tackling the deferred maintenance of urban forests and street maintenance. The ability to invest in street trees and road projects, he says, was all about timing. 

"I was fortunate to arrive at a time when Ann Arbor was emerging from the great recession," Powers says, "so the revenues of the city were improving."

Ann Arbor's next challenges

Certainly, Ann Arbor isn't without its challenges, and Powers can name a few which which the council and future administrator will be faced. Some of these are well known and immediate: determining the future of the downtown Library Lot and wrestling with the politics of the deer management plan. 

Some challenges are less visible to the public, but are nonetheless critical to maintaining good local government. Attracting talent to work for the city, says Powers, is an increased challenge with young talent both leaving the state and being attracted to private employers. 

"They're the ones really doing the hard work," he says, "and making the city continue to be an attractive place to work is going to be a challenge as the demographics of the Midwest change." But he adds, "While Ann Arbor is ahead of many local governments, we can't take that for granted." 

Of course, there are the larger, more overarching challenges in Ann Arbor's future as well, in terms of housing affordability and alternative transportation. These, Powers says, are on their way to being addressed by some policies already in place that encourage more density downtown. 

"Through its greenbelt program, Ann Arbor has said that sprawl is not desired. That means growth has to happen somewhere," he points out. The redevelopment of existing building sites and the increased density, Powers adds, is consistent with the city's master plan. 

"Also, density could help in the future with affordability issues," Powers says. "Workforce housing, doing that at a scale of 40 units, 80 units, that is more feasible than trying to do that through single owner-occupied homes."

Of course, all of these issues fall under one major challenge, one that Powers says council, staff and the entire community will continue to wrestle with moving forward: "That is the ongoing discuss of what Ann Arbor wants to be when it grows up," he says.  

Administrative advice

It is inevitable that Ann Arbor's next city administrator will be helping to guide the implementation of the policy decisions that aim to answer that question. In terms of advice to whoever that will be, Powers has one major tip: 

"Be prepared for a dynamic, engaged community," he says, "a community and a council that values process, that values vigorous debate and discussion of issues. In that respect, Ann Arbor is the most dynamic community in Michigan."

And "dynamic" means many things to Powers, from the fact that the community is growing and influenced by the university, to the community including vocal proponents and opponents of every imaginable issues, to the fact that there is a local election every single year in Ann Arbor. Essentially, ideas and opinions are constantly in flux. The next manager should be aware that Ann Arbor's notable dynamics are both a benefit and a significant challenge, he says, especially when working on long-term development issues. 

"To be able to work in a community that very much expects the basic services to be done with Midwestern thriftiness while being able to work on issues that may not really result in positive, specific outcome for many years," Powers says, "if he or she isn't ready for that, they may find they're mismatched for Ann Arbor."

He also expects the next city administrator to feel as satisfied by the experience of working in Ann Arbor as he has. 

"The city of Ann Arbor has a long standing reputation for a being a good place to work if you're a professional manager," he says. "It's been a really humbling and gratifying four years and I really appreciate the support that I've received."

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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